Romeo’s Distress (2016) is a micro-budgeted production that is a shining star of an example of when serious talent and very hard work gets the most out of such meagre resources. The result is high production values and an effective filmmaking vision to rival bigger budget genre fare. A deftly executed and freshly original horror, it is a quirky character study – an impassioned fusion of Gothic and Shakespearian sensibilities, meshed with David Lynch/John Waters-esque offbeat weirdness.
It is the debut feature of independent filmmaker, Jeff Frumess, who took inspiration for this DIY project from the equally low budget and much beloved indie modern zombie classic, The Battery (2012). Working with the minuscule funds of $2,553, the screenplay was written to accommodate this tiny sum, and Frumess takes on a number of crew roles other than writer and director. He serves as co-producer, cinematographer, production designer, and editor, and is even part of the cast in a mysterious small role, credited as “Fake Shemp” in homage to the work of Sam Raimi. There are only two other crew members, including Nick Bohun – associate producer, sound, and gaffer – who actually worked on The Battery in the sound department.
Filming took place over 23 days during a 15 month period in three different locations within the north-eastern United States; primarily in White Plains, New York (where Jeff Frumess is based), and also in New Milford, Connecticut, and South Plainfield, New Jersey.
James (Anthony Malchar) is an introverted young man. He is a keen photographer, a hopeless romantic and, as the title suggests, this Romeo is a fair bit distressed. He looks after his crazy grandmother, spends much of his time hanging around a cemetery, and unhealthily obsesses over Jane (Kimberely A. Peterson in a silent role) as he fantasises about this unrequited love. Jane’s father, Dale (Jeff Solomon), resorts to sadistic methods in his disdain for James.
The monochrome black-and-white cinematography, and the pivotal setting of the cemetery, induces the Gothic and morose atmosphere. Four different locations were used for this cemetery setting, including the famous Old Dutch Cemetery in Sleepy Hollow, NY, right next to the spot of the covered bridge from Washington Irving’s classic short story, The Legend of Sleepy Hollow (1820).
Sequences of full colour are integrated to depict James daydreaming about Jane and him together and for narrative flashbacks. Frumess uses deliberate pacing and subtle foreshadowing to unravel a suspenseful mystery. It is whimsical romantic longing for the most part of the first half of the 82-minutes runtime with touches of black humour. The events that affect James raise questions about his character, and his unreciprocated love for Jane; is he just a harmless, awkward, love struck 20-something, or is he a creep who harmed her? One of the dream scenes also contributes to this — and you will never look at a carrot in the same way again. While the film maintains an unsettling tone throughout, it is, by the halfway mark, when the proceedings abruptly shift to Dale’s point-of-view, that it descends into something far darker, tragic, and violent, leading to an intense finale. The writer and director plays with our expectations, and the outcome is something memorably melancholic.
The acting of this ensemble cast is surprisingly strong all around for a production of this nature, and two of its members shine through especially. Actually making his acting debut here, Malchar’s nerdy persona and social awkwardness embody the loneliness of isolation. He draws our sympathy in a relatable performance, but is also believably capable of showing how unhinged his character can be. The other true standout turn is from the most experienced of the cast. Veteran indie actor, Solomon, has a memorable presence as supposed antagonist, Dale, exuding menace, and is wholly convincing in his grim determination as he exacts a brutal retribution on James. The dialogue is also earthy, and the whole cast deliver their lines with conviction.
Jeff Frumess’ own grandmother plays James’ loony grandmother in close-up shots, although ex-Misfits manager, Dave Street, who also takes on the role of James’ eccentric, Uncle Elmo, plays her body; her body and face shots were actually filmed over a year apart. These two oddball characters provide some of the film’s overall Lynch/Waters surrealism, as does certain creative visual imagery.
The other star here is the soundtrack. Frumess displays a passion for music and here it is for punk rock. He showcases his ability to pick the right tracks at the right times for musical cues that serve the beats of the story; it is the beating heart of the film. Romeo’s Distress actually takes its title from a song of the same name by influential deathrock band, Christian Death. However, the subject matter in the song could not be further from this, as the lyrics are about the religious hypocrisy of the KKK and other racist groups.
Romeo’s Distress is a unique and intriguing oddity. A strange arthouse experimentation seamlessly melded together with an energetic genre-bending pastiche of creativity, the film is an engaging character study that is a darkly comical and ultimately bleak exploration of the dark side of love. It is an assured and accomplished debut feature highlighting the innovation rising from the underground horror scene, and Jeff Frumess’ promise as a filmmaker within this genre.
Romeo’s Distress had its world premiere at this year’s Macabre Faire Film Festival in Ronkonkoma, NY, where it won the award for Best Screenplay, and received nominations for Best Picture, Best Director, and Best Actor (Jeff Solomon). It will be making its way to other festivals, and is looking for a distributor.